What Works -and Doesn’t- in a Longer School Day

When Say Yes to Education, a New York-based nonprofit, took its program for school reform to Syracuse, N.Y., one of its nonnegotiable conditions was that the district stretch learning time into the late afternoon and the summer.

Say Yes based its demand on the assumption that urban students like those in Syracuse generally require more time to compensate for gaps. A number of reports beginning in the 1990s have urged schools to lengthen the time that youngsters spend learning.

Now, five and a half years after the Syracuse City School District began collaborating with Say Yes, after-school hours are a fixture in that upstate New York system. The experience in Syracuse offers these lessons for other districts:

  • Unlike a mandatory program that is part of a regular extended school day, an after-school program like the one in Syracuse may not draw the students who could benefit most from extended time.
  • Advocates are divided over whether after-school hours are best spent in academic pursuits or in addressing social-emotional needs and offering recreational activities.
  • Even when after-school hours are used mostly to bolster academic performance outcomes vary according to the quality and nature of the programs.
  • Schools have the means to make better use of time that are not used to their full advantage, including a focus on attendance.

Often, the availability of an after-school program depends on outside funding, as is mostly the case in Syracuse. In Sacramento, Calif., for example, half the money for the summer program came from the Packard Foundation, the Magic Johnson Foundation, and Best Buy.

Despite the interest in extended time, only about 2,000 U.S. schools had added or were experimenting with longer days — official school days that were at least 10 percent to 60 percent longer and school years of up to 30 days longer, according to a 2011 Wallace Foundation report.

Schools cannot compel students to attend when added time is not part of the official school day — in other words, when participations is voluntary. That is the case in Syracuse and for most of the 8.4 million students who participate in such programs. In Syracuse, some students most in need of these after-school programs opt out of them even though transportation home is free.

Extra learning time will not become integral to schools until states and districts decide that taxpayers should bear the cost and make it part of the regular school day, a development not apt to occur quickly in the current economic climate.

More classroom time

By sixth grade, a child from an affluent family has spent thousands of hours learning that a poor child would have missed out on. Read our ongoing series on this issue or read some related stories below:

The main push for a longer school day stems from a desire to give youngsters more time to raise their learning to new levels, but after-school programs — unlike most extended regular school days — may not focus solely on academics. Some proponents maintain that students need a break from academics. Furthermore, it is simply less expensive to hire non-certificated personnel who oversee non-academic activities.

Very often, as in Syracuse, half the extra time is recreational during both the school year and the summer. Youngsters string beads, kick balls, and put on plays. Is this what experts have in mind when it comes to extending time for learning?

There is also the question of whether having students do homework — as opposed to learning new lessons — is the best use of added time. In one Syracuse school, I watched third- and fourth-graders solve multiplication problems on worksheets, turning to the teacher only when they were stymied. Yet presumably, some of these students might not have done homework if not for this setting.

In another classroom, fifth-graders did homework reviewing the scientific method, an activity that appeared more productive.  The students were preparing for a lab scheduled for the next day and they went back over the procedures of stating a problem, gathering information, giving a possible solution, testing the hypothesis, and then recording and analyzing the test data.

If homework figures in the equation, it ought to be more than busy work and students should get feedback. But it may well be that one of the best uses of after-school hours, other than homework, is to have youngsters delve into topics that get insufficient attention during the earlier part of the day.

When the Florida Legislature mandated in 2012 that the state’s 100 lowest-ranking elementary schools add an hour to the regular school day and devote the time to intensive reading instruction, this step represented a targeted approach. In many other places, however, there is little guidance on how schools must use the extra time, whether in an extension of the regular day or in an after-school program.

In the first year of Florida’s program 73 of the 100 schools increased the percentage of students scoring at grade level. It would be great to be able to report that extended learning time always lifts students to new levels. Alas, this is not necessarily the case.

In Massachusetts, where the state’s Expanded Learning Time Initiative had spread to 19 schools in nine districts by 2012, the impact on student performance was inconsistent, according to a study by Abt Associates. There was no clear pattern of improvement on achievement scores and the schools had much more leeway than in Florida on how they used the time.

There is something of an analogy here to pre-kindergarten education. Just because a child under age 5 spends time in an organized setting does not mean that he or she reaps the benefits associated with the Perry Preschool Study or the Abecedarian Project, the gold standards for preschools. Similarly, all ventures in extended learning time are not equal.

Amid the interest in extending time for learning, there is not always sufficient attention to learning strategies that work and can be carried out within the existing school day and school year. For example, teachers who organize their schedules so that students spend more time on task give them, in effect, more learning time. The largest impact, though, would come from getting all children to attend school faithfully. Researchers have found that children who miss too much school in kindergarten and the first grade fall behind in reading by the third grade.

A study of school absences in New York City revealed that least one of every five fourth-graders was chronically absent, missing at least 10 percent of school.  There was a direct correlation with low achievement. Perhaps boosting attendance would yield the most dividends as funds remain scarce for extending the school day, formally or informally.

Gene I. Maeroff

Gene I. Maeroff is the author of the recently published book Reforming a School System, Reviving a City: The Promise of Say Yes to Education in Syracuse. He was also the founding director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.